Somalia: How 'Quiet Americans' Helped Defeat Al Shabaab 22 Aug 22, 2011 - 1:20:48 AM
by Kevin J. Kelley
New York — A US-based military training organisation that has been quietly working in Somalia for the past three years is seen as a key factor behind the recent successes of African Union forces battling the al-Shabaab Islamist insurgency.
Bancroft Global Development, headquartered on Washington's Embassy Row, employs about 40 South African and European trainers who work with the Ugandan and Burundian troops that comprise the AU military mission in Somalia (Amisom).
Bancroft director Michael Stock told The EastAfrican last week that these mentors are embedded with Amisom units in Mogadishu and southern and central Somalia. They coach commanders on peace-support operations strategies, especially on how to predict and defeat the tactics which foreign fighters bring from outside East Africa and teach to al-Shabaab.
The group's trainers do not carry weapons and have no affiliation with the Pentagon or the CIA, Mr Stock said. Several have been wounded during Amisom's battles with Shabaab, but none have been killed, he added.
Mr Stock attributed the survival of his organisation's employees to Amisom soldiers' immense courage protecting Bancroft staff over the past three years. He said this is a very moving sign of the bond between the mentors and the protégés."
Mr Stock, a 34-year-old graduate of an Ivy League university, was at pains to distinguish Bancroft from the private contracting firms that work directly with the US military in Iraq, Afghanistan and other war zones around the world.
Bancroft, which initially engaged in land mine-clearing operations, is a not-for-profit, non-governmental organisation, Mr Stock noted. It does not receive funding directly from the US government but is instead paid by Amisom, which is then reimbursed by the State Department for these outlays.
The Associated Press reports that Bancroft has been paid $12.5 million for its work in Somalia since 2008.
Mr Stock is keen to steer clear of the controversies that have arisen as a result of the Pentagon's growing dependence on private contractors. These profit-making firms play essential support roles in US military operations but they are not subject to public oversight.
Private contractors have become a vital element in Washington's global strategy because of American political reluctance or financial inability to assign responsibilities directly to US military personnel. The contractors are seen as proxies who often work closely with US client forces in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Despite the distinction drawn by Mr Stock, Bancroft is being indirectly funded by the United States in order to help the Pentagon avoid putting boots on the ground in Somalia.
Obama administration officials have repeatedly said they do not want to insert US troops directly into a war that Washington does regard as crucial to its counter-terrorism operations worldwide.
Painful memories linger of the sudden US military withdrawal from Somalia in the early 1990s following militia attacks that took the lives of several American soldiers.
The US relies mainly on Amisom and Somalia's Transitional Federal Government to counter Shabaab, which Washington describes as a terrorist organisation with links to al-Qaeda. The US has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to equip and train Amisom and the TFG's forces. In addition, the CIA has established a base at Mogadishu's airport where it also maintains its own aircraft. The US has also been carrying out its own drone strikes and special-forces raids against suspected Shabaab targets.
This multi-faceted approach has lately inflicted significant losses on Shabaab, causing it to withdraw from Mogadishu. Analysts in Somalia suggest that Bancroft deserves some of the credit for this development. Mr Stock's organisation is said to have enhanced Amisom troops' fighting skills and helped the anti-Shabaab forces gain political support by instructing them in tactics that have reduced civilian casualties in Mogadishu.
On his part, Mr Stock says Uganda and Burundi sent capable, experienced soldiers to Amisom from the beginning of the mission. Bancroft mentors who have experience in such operations from other parts of the world helped to transform the conventional combat forces into a much more sophisticated peace-support operations capability.
The Amisom troops have become truly impressive," Mr Stock declares. Bancroft is committed to remaining in Somalia as long as there are humanitarian and development needs and as long as the Somali government and people want Bancroft to be there, he adds.
Well-placed analysts of the military situation in Somalia caution that Shabaab is likely to adopt a strategy of assassinations and bombings with the aim of returning Mogadishu to a condition of chaos and thereby discrediting Amisom and the TFG.